by Diane L. Richard | Sep 5, 2013
When I work on complex research problems or receive a thick packet of research from a client, one of my first steps is to create a timeline. With a timeline, you always have the basic details of people, events, and locations at your fingertips. The visual aspect of a timeline helps me see information in a different way.
A nice bonus is that when I create a timeline, I am forced to review every scrap of information at least once. It is amazing the amount of overlooked information you find when you do this.
Timelines help us get a grasp on who is doing what, where, and when. They are great for "visual" people to get handle on all of the data that they've been collecting. Having it in a visual, graphic format can help not only to identify gaps in your research, but also to resolve data that conflicts and to strategize about what to look for next.
There are many types of data that you can add to a timeline. Adding historical context can help you better understand what you've found as well as provide possible "a ha" moments for why some events occurred in your ancestor's life. (No children from 1862-1866? Was her husband away fighting in the Civil War?)
Do not view your timeline as a one-time use document; consider your timeline as an organic document that will evolve as your project progresses. Not only do I reference my timelines for already collected information, I am continually adding newly-found information.
Timelines do not have to be like the classic, two-column ones where the left column is time and the right is some event. Frequently, we need to move beyond a simple linear timeline and create a matrix of multiple people or families when using this technique to solve a genealogical research problem.
Most of the timelines I create use a matrix format. If you are not sure which type to create, I suggest constructing a matrix timeline to capture more, rather than less, information.
Whenever I create a timeline, I always put the date in the leftmost column with an adjacent column for "where" and then columns for the various "who" (individuals, family groups, etc.), with the rightmost column for notes.
The notes column is a great place to pose questions. For example, the 1870 census lists John's wife as Tabitha and the 1860 census lists her as Mary. Are they one and the same or two different people? I will often highlight these questions in bold yellow to make sure I remember to pursue the research. In essence, I've just created a strategy for my next phase of research.
There are several ways to make your timeline even more helpful:
Historical context that is helpful includes:
Basically, I would include an entry or note about anything that might explain record losses, impact how you interpret the information you have on your ancestor, or suggest where you next might look.
Extensive use of footnotes provides additional information about specific entries. This allows the timeline itself to still be concise while not losing key source information, context, and additional information that might be significant. It does make your timeline larger; however, the core data is in an easy-to-read format.
Historical context items have been included; these are the grey-colored entries in this example.
Geographic context is important. Color-coding different locales can provide perspective on the pattern of migration. It may also show you that who you thought was one person may actually be two identically named individuals.
Color-coding names can make things more obvious by helping us see how people are associated. It might help us learn, as in this example, that one Thomas is connected to a William and another to a John. We might also see that one person is consistently listed adjacent to and in the records of an unrelated individual, whereas another same-named person is never found in those records.
Timelines are an important research tool for our genealogical research. These tricks of the trade can help your timelines effectively reflect known information, answer key questions, and simplify setting your research strategy. Creating a timeline to facilitate your ancestral research is time well spent and definitely something that you will not regret creating.
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